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Latin America Says No to the Militarization of Colombia's "Drug War"

A few drug lords, politicians, and corporate profiteers benefit, but most of the population suffers from increased poverty, migration, drug production, street crime, and violence.

This past September, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew criticism for comparing the current situation in Mexico to “Colombia 20 years ago.” Most of that criticism questioned whether the analogy was appropriate or whether the statement was an unnecessary affront to a close U.S. ally, the Mexican government of Felipe Calderón. But the more significant part of Clinton’s comments was her enthusiastic praise for Plan Colombia -- the massive U.S. military aid package started by her husband in 1999 -- and her insistence on the need “to figure out what are the equivalents” for other regions, particularly Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

The idea that Plan Colombia should be emulated anywhere is appalling to those acquainted with Colombia’s human rights record, which has been the worst in Latin America for the past 20 years. Ché Guevara once famously called for “two, three, many Vietnams” in order to overthrow capitalist imperialism in the Third World. Clinton’s call for the replication of the Colombia model elsewhere is no less bold, for she too called for international transformation. That prescription appears less surprising when grounded in the broader context of recent U.S. policy toward Latin America.

For Whom Did the Colombia Model “Work”?

In her September 8 remarks, Hillary Clinton commented that “there were problems and there were mistakes” with Plan Colombia, “but it worked.” As with any policy, it is critical to understand how, and for whom, it “worked.” If implementation of the Colombia model -- my shorthand for U.S. policy toward Colombia over the past two decades -- reflects the Obama administration’s vision for the rest of Latin America, the logic and consequences of the model must be addressed.

In 1999, Bill Clinton initiated Plan Colombia, billed as an anti-narcotics program. Since then, the primary stated justification for appropriating more than $5 billion in U.S. military and police aid to Colombia has been the “war on drugs.” But the program has not been motivated by a sincere concern for public health. First of all, more substantial threats to public health have elicited little concern in Washington. Cancer, heart disease, and diabetes each kill more people than cocaine or heroin. And their links to tobacco use, industrial food production, and corporate pollution, as well as the U.S. government’s encouragement of these practices through subsidies, foreign trade agreements, and lax regulations, are well documented. Tobacco alone kills more people than illegal drugs, alcohol, car accidents, murders, and suicides combined. A recent study by the medical journal Lancet found that alcohol harms far more people than crack and heroin. Yet few politicians are willing to propose a “war on tobacco” or a “war on alcohol,” complete with mandatory prison sentences for producers, users, and distributors.

The second problem is that Plan Colombia has had little effect on the flow of narcotics into the United States. In 2007, Colombian economist Héctor Mondragón noted that “[n]ever before have drug traffickers had so much power in Colombia.” Colombian coca production has fluctuated -- for example, rising by 27 percent in 2007 and declining by 18 percent the next year. At the broader regional level, periods of decline in Colombian production have coincided with increases elsewhere, and vice versa. Most recently, many producers and traffickers have relocated from Colombia to Peru, and to a lesser extent Bolivia, increasing coca production in those countries. Even so, Colombia remains the world’s leading cocaine producer.

Former Colombian President César Gaviria, who co-chairs the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, summarized the commission’s extensive 2009 report by saying that “[w]e consider the war on drugs a failure because the objectives have never been achieved…Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization have not yielded the expected results. We are today farther than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.” Similar conclusions apply to Mexico, which in the 1990s replaced Florida and the Caribbean as the primary narcotics transport hub due to anti-drug campaigns elsewhere. As analyst Laura Carlsen noted recently, since the Mexican government began a U.S.-funded, $1.4-billion anti-drug program in 2008, “Drug-related violence has exploded…with nearly 30,000 dead since the launch of the drug war in late 2006. Human rights violations charged against the army had gone up sixfold by [2009], and just in the past months [of mid-2010] Army forces have shot and killed several civilians.”

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